Sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are small nocturnal marsupials native to Australia and New Guinea. They belong to family Petauridae, which includes the wrist-winged gliders. Gliders in this family possess gliding membranes running from their wrist to their ankle, which allows them to glide up to 50 m and forage with less use of energy. Sugar gliders are territorial and live in colonies with a dominant male. They sleep in tree hollows by day and between foraging trips at night. They tolerate a wide range of environmental temperatures and go into torpor to conserve energy in very cold conditions. Sugar gliders are omnivorous and feed on sugar-rich plant exudates (sap, gum, and nectar) and invertebrates. They are hindgut fermenters and possess a well-developed cecum that utilizes bacterial fermentation to break down complex polysaccharides contained in gum. see Sugar Gliders: Selected Physiologic Data for Sugar Gliders summarizes important biologic and physiologic data for sugar gliders.
To perform a full clinical examination, anesthesia with isoflurane is required. If possible the animal should be first observed moving in its cage to assess posture, coordination, and demeanor. Once anesthetized cloacal temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate can be recorded and the heart and lungs assessed with a pediatric stethoscope. Pulmonary diseases are easier to detect with radiographs. The fur and skin should be examined for ectoparasites, traumatic injury, fur loss, and hydration; the oral cavity for broken teeth, dental abscesses, or tartar build up; and the eyes and ears for any abnormalities. The cloacal area should be examined and the penis of males extruded. The abdomen should be palpated and the pouch in females examined. Major joints should also be palpated and digits and toenails checked for evidence of trauma. Sugar gliders possess androgen-sensitive frontal (forehead), gular (throat), sternal, and paracloacal glands, which they use to mark each other and their furniture. Sparse fur and an oily discharge is normal on the frontal and sternal glands of postpubescent males.
If animals are dehydrated, fluid therapy can be administered subcutaneously with up to 10% of body weight of an isotonic solution.
Hematology and Biochemistry
Reference ranges for sugar gliders are presented in see Sugar Gliders: Selected Hematologic and Serum Biochemical Values for Sugar Gliders. Chemical restraint is essential to allow blood collection and this is most safely achieved with isoflurane/oxygen administered via mask and T-piece. To assist in making clinical diagnoses, blood samples may be obtained from the jugular vein, medial tibial artery, or lateral tail vein. Blood volumes of up to 1% of the animal's body weight can be collected; typically 0.5–1.0 mL is obtained. The jugular vein can be visualized if the hair is clipped and the vein is held up with pressure from a narrow object (eg, a tuberculin syringe). A 25-gauge needle can be bent at its base to facilitate venipuncture at this site. The medial tibial artery, which runs very superficially just distal and medial to the stifle joint, is easier to access and can be sampled with a 27- or 25-gauge needle and 0.5–1.0 mL syringe. Pressure after sampling is required to avoid hematoma formation. The size of the lateral tail vein is most suited to skin prick and droplet collection into capillary tubes.
Nutrition and Housing
Ideally sugar gliders should be maintained as a group with 1 male and a number of females. If breeding occurs, the young should be removed soon after weaning, or violent attempts to disperse them may occur. A wooden nest box with a snug entry hole is required. A large cage with elevated horizontal runways (branches are preferred to ropes) is required for nocturnal activity. Fresh nectar-laden blossoms and insect-infested branches provide natural enrichment.
The ideal artificial diet includes insects (crickets, mealworms, cockroaches, moths) to promote dental health, as well as a daily nectar/sap substitute (eg, fructose/sucrose/glucose or maple syrup or honey diluted to 10% with water). Commercial or homemade insectivore or omnivore mixes can be provided when live food is in short supply. Fruit, nuts, and vegetable mixes will be appreciated but should be offered in moderation. Food should be offered on an elevated platform, as sugar gliders feel more secure. Sugar gliders are generally robust in captivity when proper husbandry practices are followed.
Sugar gliders can be susceptible to infection with common bacteria including Pasteurella, staphylococci, streptococci, mycobacteria, and Clostridia. Clinical signs are nonspecific, with depression, loss of appetite, and weight loss being the most readily detected. Although sugar gliders are hindgut fermenters, broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy is well tolerated, probably because the captive diet is digestible without fermentation. Injectable long-acting penicillin or clavulanic acid are appropriate first-line antibiotics. If indicated by culture and sensitivity or failure to respond to first-line treatment, chloramphenicol and enrofloxacin are also known to be tolerated in this species. Injections can be given into the hindleg muscles or SC over the rib cage, with the animal restrained in a small cotton bag. Palatable oral medications may be administered to an animal unrestrained in its nest box.
Toxoplasmosis is a common and serious disease of marsupials, typically presenting with neurologic signs. Care should be taken to avoid cat feces coming in contact with the bedding or food of sugar gliders. Prevention is more successful than treatment.
Internal parasites rarely cause disease, but strongyle eggs have been seen on fecal flotation. The recorded internal parasites are nematodes of the genus Parastrongyloides and Paraustrostrongylus and a liver trematode of the genus Athesmia. Wild sugar glider nests generally contain a range of host-specific mites and fleas, but ectoparasites are uncommon in captivity. Dusting with carbaryl powder (50 g/kg) has been effective in controlling fleas and mites. Both the nest and the animal should be treated. Ivermectin (0.2 mg/kg, SC or PO) has also been used to control internal and external parasites.
Pet sugar gliders maintained on a mainly fruit diet are very susceptible to nutritional osteodystrophy. This condition manifests clinically as a posterior paresis progressing to hind limb paralysis. Radiography reveals osteoporosis of the vertebral column, pelvis, and long bones in particular. Treatment involves cage rest, administration of calcium, and correction of the diet.
Gliders are prone to neoplastic disease in old age, particularly lymphoid neoplasia. A soft tissue carcinoma associated with a microchip implant has occurred in a mahogany glider (Petaurus gracilis). A malignant testicular interstitial cell tumor in a mahogany glider has been managed by hemicastration.
Behavioral disorders can occur in sugar gliders housed alone, with incompatible mates, or in inappropriate cages. It is essential to provide sugar gliders with a secure nest box or pouch. Anxiety can manifest as overgrooming with fur loss, particularly at the base of the tail. Self-mutilation, over- or under-eating, polydipsia, coprophagia, cannibalism, and pacing are also associated with stress. Sexually mature male sugar gliders have been reported to develop priapism in which the penis remained extruded from the cloaca and became traumatized and devitalized, necessitating amputation.
Diseases such as salmonellosis, giardiasis, leptospirosis, and toxoplasmosis are potentially zoonotic. Sugar gliders bite and scratch; although they are small, their lower incisors are designed to bite through tree bark. They are best handled in a bag and examined while anesthetized. All discharges should be treated as potentially infectious.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Rosemary J. Booth, BVSc